Question: I don’t know how to make [physical] intimacy a priority in our relationship. My husband is often gone, and when he is home, I’m either too tired or not interested because we haven’t been emotionally close for days. What can we do to keep the intimacy alive in our relationship?
Answer: I actually receive some form of this question several times a week! It is a very common concern from physician couples at all stages.
While there are many elements that feed into improving intimacy in a relationship, I want to address three strategies you can begin to implement right now that can strengthen your physical connection.
1. Talk About It. You talk about finances, your dreams, your parenting, your lives, but so many couples never discuss their intimate relationship with each other. It’s impossible to have a fulfilling sexual relationship without ever talking about it.
A satisfying sex life does not just happen. You may be biologically programmed to function sexually, but that doesn’t mean it happens automatically. In order to ensure that it works in your relationship, you have to talk about it.
Even if you have had these conversations in the past, it’s important to continually discuss your sexual relationship. Sexual interest and preference does not remain static throughout your life. Pregnancy and hormonal changes due to aging–among other things–will change feelings and reactions. Those changes need to be communicated and worked through. Healthy individuals are capable of finding sexual satisfaction their entire lives. But it takes work and it certainly takes communication.
If you have never done this before, it will probably be awkward at first. Start with having these conversations with your clothes on. Sex is extremely vulnerable. Trying to have these conversations while you are being intimate can feel too risky. Talk about sex when you are not in the middle of the vulnerability. The more you have these conversations, the easier they will become.
A few conversation starters would be:
How often would you ideally like to have sex?
When did you feel our intimacy was really working well?
What would you like to see changed about our sex life?
2. Learn About It. Not only do men and women have very different sexual responses, they also often assign different meaning to lovemaking.
It can be hard to comprehend the sexual relationship from your partner’s perspective if you haven’t learned about it. Michelle Weiner-Davis, a sex therapist and educator said, “Men need to feel good about their sexual relationships in order to be invested in satisfying their wives emotionally. But women need to feel emotionally connected to their husbands in order to satisfy them sexually.”
Consider for a minute how men become close to another person. If they want to be close with their buddies, they don’t call them up and see if they want to meet at Panera for lunch so they can talk. Instead, they do something together–play basketball, go golfing, go to a football game, or out to a movie. Men grow close to other people through actions rather than through words.
Even if you take sex out of the equation, most men equate action with love. They’ll build you shelves for your closet, mow the lawn, or go to work every day.
Most men will never feel closer to their partners than during sex. Michelle Weiner-Davis also explained that during intimacy, “men often give themselves permission to feel tender emotions that otherwise just lurk below the surface. Their wives’ touches, kisses, and caresses trigger a feeling of connectedness and vulnerability that reinforces the love they feel for their [wives]. In addition to the closeness a man feels to his wife, a solid sexual relationship does wonders for his self-esteem and sense of masculinity. Little corrodes a man’s feeling of confidence and sense of virility more than his wife’s continual rejections.”
When men are rejected sexually, they often see that as a rejection of themselves, not just the activity. Likewise, most women underestimate how important it is for men to satisfy their wives sexually.
Male sexual desire and arousal are closely linked, because men more easily respond to a single sexual cue. Desire often comes before arousal.
Women do not typically respond that way. One of the key things to know about female sexual response is that it is responsive; desire often comes after arousal. That means that one sexual cue usually isn’t enough. Women need multiple sexual cues to create the context for arousal and therefore intimacy. You may have to remember that you just need to get started and then the desire will come.
For women, there is also a direct correlation between a negative body image and sexual inhibitions. USA Today reports that the #1 reason women avoid physical intimacy is because they feel uncomfortable with how their body looks.
Women, I encourage you to fight against the stereotypes the media feeds you, and work on developing confidence in who you see in the mirror. Not only for yourself, but certainly for your marriage–and for your daughters, who pick up on much more than we want them to. As you begin to accept yourself physically, you will become a much more sexually confident wife. Men, this is an important point for you too. Be very careful what messages you send about your wife’s appearance.
3. Prioritize it. Too often, the things that matter least are given first priority in our lives.
Make an intentional effort to keep your physical relationship a priority–even with the exhaustion, stress, and emotional strain you may encounter in your day-to-day life and relationship. Try to have sex at least once a week. If you need to schedule it to make sure it happens, that’s okay! Having it on the schedule not only helps with keeping it a priority, but also becomes one more sexual cue for women that will help with desire and arousal.
Make use of the time you have together. Get creative. Find the small pockets of time that you can use to build and develop your physical relationship. Even if you do not have time for sex, focus on cuddling and non-sexual touching.
Trust that sexual intimacy will keep you emotionally connected. I know it can be hard to want to be physically close when there is little time together and perhaps a strained emotional connection. I’d encourage you to expand your perspective on the role of intimacy in your relationship. If you begin to see your sexual relationship as an opportunity to feel closer to your spouse, say “I’m sorry,” “I forgive you,” or “I love you,” or allow your partner to express these things in return, then your sexual relationship becomes more than just an act to satisfy a biological urge.
Touch can communicate things that words cannot. Your sexual relationship can become a source of power, healing, and strength in your marriage.